Home on the Sage

A historic effort to conserve sagebrush habitat helps keep the greater sage-grouse off the U.S. endangered species list

  • Ted Williams
  • Conservation
  • Sep 28, 2016

Sunlight accents the regal display of a male greater sage-grouse as it fans its tail to attract mates on a lek in Montana.

ON SEPTEMBER 22, 2015, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell traveled to Colorado to make a historic announcement. Because of an extraordinary collaborative effort across 11 western states to help save the imperiled “sagebrush sea,” the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined that the greater sage-grouse did not warrant listing under the Endangered Species Act (ESA)—marking victory for what Jewell called “the largest land conservation effort in U.S. history.”

That effort united ranchers, biologists, energy companies, sportsmen, other conservationists and government agencies at all levels who worked together for five years to develop plans that will help protect not only sagebrush habitat and species that depend on it but also traditional western ways of life. “I’m optimistic that we have shown that epic collaboration across a landscape guided by sound science is truly the future of American conservation,” Jewell said.

The applause had barely faded before the lawsuits began. Some groups say the government isn’t going far enough to protect the sagebrush steppe and the greater sage-grouse, a declining flagship species. Others fear that plans to save the species could limit land-use rights. Arguments aside, it’s clear that the prospect of an ESA listing sparked an unprecedented landscape restoration effort that has united some traditional adversaries to save a bird Jewell calls “the pulse of an imperiled ecosystem.

That ecosystem once throbbed with untold numbers of sage-grouse. On their westward expedition in 1805, Lewis and Clark described the “great abundance” of what they called the “cock of the plains.” Naturalist George Bird Grinnell recalled a trip to Wyoming in 1886 when he saw sage-grouse fly in such vast numbers they transformed the sky into “a moving mass of gray.”

Over time, greater sage-grouse became known for a courtship ritual that’s among the most spectacular in nature. On spring dawns, hens watch from the high sage as males ghost onto leks (mating-display areas) to ram each other with their chests, spar with their wings, fan spiked tail feathers, puff white breasts and inflate twin yellow throat sacks, making a booming sound that echoes across the plains.

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Sage-grouse once ranged across some 297 million acres in the United States and Canada. Today, their range has been nearly halved due to habitat fragmentation, invasive plants, livestock grazing, agriculture, wildfire and energy development.

Pressure From All Fronts

Those echoes began to fade as the birds fell on hard times. Nineteenth-century market hunting and eventual conversion of native range to agriculture and livestock grazing seriously depleted sage-grouse populations and habitat. Management decisions to suppress fire on the plains allowed invasive plants such as juniper, pinyon pine and cheatgrass to choke out native sagebrush, which provides food and cover for these ground-nesting birds. The invasive plants fuel searing wildfires that sterilize broad swaths of soil. And habitat fragmentation from human sprawl and energy development—particularly natural-gas fields with their web of roads, well pads and pipelines—has taken a brutal toll.

The sage-grouse’s original range of some 297 million acres in 14 western states has been nearly cut in half. Today the birds survive in 11 states. Population estimates are tricky because of the species’ cyclical booms and busts, but researchers estimate that only 200,000 to 500,000 greater sage-grouse now exist—a loss of up to 95 percent.

That steep decline will surprise no one who has seen Wyoming’s 30,000-acre Jonah Field, a massive natural-gas site about 30 miles south of Pinedale. In 2004, I inspected it on foot and by air. On all compass points as far as I could see, the Earth looked as if it had been hosed with a giant scattergun. Well pads stood just 40 feet apart. Dirt roads bled into the Green River system. Scum-encrusted water, contaminated with fracking fluids, festered in plastic-lined ponds, attracting waterfowl.

Such sites can pose other insidious threats to wildlife. The Powder River Basin of southeast Montana and northeast Wyoming, for example, once sustained one of the largest, most robust sage-grouse populations. But a natural-gas boom there spawned some 40,000 wells that brought up millions of gallons of contaminated water. Initially, that water was sprayed over the landscape, killing sagebrush and other plants. To address that problem, companies built hundreds of holding ponds, but mosquitoes bred in them and soon infected sage-grouse with West Nile virus. That disease, along with the habitat disturbance, has wiped out 85 percent of the basin’s sage-grouse.

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Near Wyoming’s Jonah Field natural-gas site (left), sage-grouse often die on busy roads (right)

A Shift to Sanity

Some forward-thinking managers saw that a new approach was needed to protect wildlife and wild lands—and to avert an ESA listing for greater sage-grouse, which would have led to serious land-use restrictions harming western economies and lifestyles. The best example came out of Wyoming where, in 2008, then-Governor Dave Freudenthal issued an executive order to protect key sage-grouse habitat beyond Jonah Field by restricting future development disturbance to 5 percent. As a result, well pads are limited to only one per square mile, a vast improvement over the crowding at Jonah.

Freudenthal’s order established a precedent for genuine sage-grouse recovery. But that couldn’t deter requests to list the bird under the ESA, an effort that began in the late 1990s. Most mainstream environmental groups supported collaborative efforts to save the sage-grouse without listing. But in 2010, the Center for Biological Diversity, WildEarth Guardians and the Western Watersheds Project sued the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) for not listing the sage-grouse, settling when DOI agreed to review the bird’s status and make a final decision on listing by September 2015. That started a five-year clock to find a landscape-scale solution to save the bird.

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Two male sage-grouse battle for dominance—and female attention—on a snow-dusted lek near Walden, Colorado.

Unconventional Alliances

Federal lands constitute 64 percent of sage-grouse habitat, tended mostly by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and to a much smaller degree by the U.S. Forest Service. Private lands account for about 31 percent of the bird’s turf, with 5 percent in state hands. Stakeholders across this vast patchwork have political, economic and personal agendas that can reach polar extremes. But to save the sage-grouse, they wove themselves into a powerful force with a unified purpose.

“It was amazing to see this many stakeholder groups come together for the benefit of a species and also, to be honest, for the benefit of a way of life and economy in the West,” says Kate Zimmerman, public-lands policy director for the National Wildlife Federation. “We’ve had support from mining companies, oil and gas companies, grazing interests, outdoor recreation groups, sportsmen and several governors.”

The steps each has taken are making a real difference on the ground. On federal lands, for example, the BLM crafts plans for multiple-use management on various units of land. In a typical year, BLM rewrites one or two plans. But in the past three years, it has rewritten 98, all on behalf of sage-grouse. In the eastern Rocky Mountain range, the unit plans restrict such human disturbance as oil, gas and wind development. Farther west in the Great Basin, they address wildfire management and invasive plants.

On state and private lands, conservation efforts fall under what’s called the Sage Grouse Initiative, a joint venture by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service and hundreds of other diverse partners, including private landowners, land trusts, state and federal agencies and nonprofits. To date it has invested $425 million to enroll 4.4 million acres in programs that protect and restore greater sage-grouse—a case study of how the ESA works best as a motivator for reform rather than a punishment for violation.

In one promising example, partners in the initiative have cleared 35,000 acres of invading conifers from the Warner Mountains in Oregon. Conifers and other tall invasive plants spook sage-grouse, which favor the wide-open views afforded on the sagebrush steppe to spot and evade predators. Research shows that some leks have been abandoned when as few as two trees invaded one acre. But where conifers were removed in the Warners, sage-grouse moved into the newly available habitat, debunking the popular theory that throughout its range, the species is hardwired to traditional leks. And the habitat restored by clearing has attracted other species that depend on sage. Brewer’s sparrows and green-tailed towhees, for example, have increased by 55 and 81 percent respectively.

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Hundreds of wildlife species depend on healthy sagebrush habitat. Among them, the Brewer’s sparrow, pronghorn and pygmy rabbit (clockwise from left) reflect the wide range of animals that could decline if sagebrush vanishes.

Ripple Effects

Sportsmen and women have been among the most avid proponents of sage-grouse recovery. In 2014, an NWF poll found that 84 percent of hunters in sage-grouse states advocated protection of the bird’s habitat, not because they hunt sage-grouse (very few do), but because they realize how many other species depend on the same habitat. Indeed, at least 350 animal and plant species need sagebrush to thrive. “What’s good for the bird is good for the herd,” says Miles Moretti, president and CEO of the Mule Deer Foundation, a partner in the Sage Grouse Initiative. 

“All the big game the public wants to see or hunt—including moose, elk, mule deer and pronghorn—depend on sagebrush in winter,” says National Audubon Society Vice President Brian Rutledge. “Brewer’s sparrows won’t breed within 40 yards of a road,” he adds, “so when we were hacking up the West with roads, we were assuring no future for that species. People forget there’s a whole economy out here in wildlife watching and hunting. That’s why I got engaged with sage-grouse recovery. It’s a lever to fix an ecosystem that’s been beaten to hell.”

Even the oil-and-gas industry has been working to recover sage-grouse. The Western Energy Alliance, an industry trade group, accurately notes that companies have voluntarily “implemented more than 770 specific protections for sage-grouse, while reducing impact on the land by 70 percent.” This has been accomplished with such advances as directional drilling to multiple gas deposits radiating from a single well head.

Despite progress, some players in the sage-grouse saga, including the Western Energy Alliance, fear the bird will trump their rights. In May, the group sued DOI, alleging that it had violated rule-making procedures by approving “top-down, centralized [management] plans.” And some lawmakers who advocate state acquisition of public lands have seized on sage-grouse plans as examples of federal overreach. This March, Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) introduced a rider to a federal defense bill that would block sage-grouse recovery supposedly because it would negatively impact military installations, an assertion the military has denied. On the flip side, the same three environmental groups that sued DOI in 2010 sued again after the department’s 2015 decision not to list the grouse.

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Colored for camouflage, day-old sage-grouse chicks in Wyoming huddle not far from their ground nest. Sagebrush provides food for sage-grouse, cover from predators and the only hope for the species’ survival.

Striking a Balance

For all the value of ESA listings in saving wildlife, the conservation community generally agrees that it’s far better to prevent the need for those listings through proactive action. Audubon’s Rutledge has tirelessly warned about the dangers of an ESA listing for sage-grouse, which could potentially replace state biologists who grew up in sagebrush country with federal biologists unfamiliar with western landscapes, landowners and ways of life. “There would be tragic results for local culture and a poor future for sage-dependent species,” he says. “You tell 11 states to utterly change their economic practices for the sake of a bird and watch what happens to the ESA in Congress.”

Ed Arnett, senior scientist for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, agrees. “Some litigants contend that a listing would have been better than all these draconian federal plans” implemented to prevent a listing, he says. “That’s absurd. Think about what comes after ESA designation of critical habitat. Does anyone really believe that would be less onerous?”

Clearly there are plenty of obstacles to sage-grouse salvation, including potential budget cuts for resource agencies, resistance from state and federal lawmakers and continued litigation from radical green groups and extractive industries. Yet as loud as the opposition is from the extremes, it’s being outshouted by the conservation majority in the middle. In fact, wildlife is being managed the way it should be—by ecosystem rather than individual species. Already there are some impressive results for the sage-grouse, and the general feeling among diverse partners is that if they’ve come this far, they can go the distance.

NWF Priority: United to Save Sage-grouse

“What’s good for the bird is good for the herd.” That phrase resonates with the National Wildlife Federation and its affiliates working to save the greater sage-grouse and its habitat, which is also home to species such as mule deer, elk and pronghorn. NWF affiliates in Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon and Wyoming have met with governors, their staffs and media editorial boards in support of sage-grouse conservation plans. “Protecting sage-grouse and their habitat is gravely important regionally as we look at landscape-scale challenges affecting wildlife,” says Robert Gaudet, Nevada Wildlife Federation president.
To learn more, visit www.nwf.org/sagegrouse.

Writer Ted Williams covers fish and wildlife conservation issues. He wrote about purging trout to save frogs in the August–September 2015 issue.

More from National Wildlife magazine and NWF:

Global Warming and Sagebrush Steppe Habitat
Voices of the Sage
Westerners Speak Out for Sage-Grouse, Sagebrush Steppe
Return of the Mighty Pygmy Rabbit
Keeping Public Lands Public
Our Work: Protecting Public Lands
NWF Report: Unchecked Energy Development Threatens Wildlife

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